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Sundance Labs provide an important forum for filmmakers

MATT JAMES Of the Record staff
A crew sets up for a shot in the Sundance Institute Directors Lab this past June. Photo by Scott Sine/Park Record.
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While the Sundance Film Festival occasionally feels like L.A. in the mountains, the Sundance Institute Directors Lab more closely resembles a summer camp. Nestled in the pines below Mount Timpanogos, on the grassy banks of the North Fork of the Provo River, the lab, which takes place each year in June at Sundance Resort, is relaxed and idyllic.

A visitor might see a director rehearsing a scene with a group of actors, an advisor talking to a member of the Institute staff, or Robert Redford buzzing from one group of filmmakers to another on his dirt bike. There are no crowds, no hangers-on, no Deer Valley-style parties. Instead, everyone eats lunch together in a big, white tent.

And while the film festival attracts far more press than the filmmakers labs, the feature film program, which covers the labs, actually lies closer to the heart of the Sundance Institute.

"In terms of Redford’s original vision, the goal was to create a place that could support artists and a vision," said Michelle Satter, director of the feature film program (which oversees the labs) at the Sundance Institute and a 25-year veteran of the program.

The original mission of the Sundance Institute, she explained, was to provide filmmakers with a place where they could take advantage of workshops, gain access to resources and learn the processes of filmmaking.

"The June filmmakers lab was the first project at the institute in 1981," she noted. "As the original developed, the filmmakers lab became a screenwriters lab separate [from the directors lab], and then came the producers conference and the composers lab."

The Sundance Film Festival, she said, only came later, when the state of Utah gave the Institute control of the former U.S. Independent Film Festival in 1985. At that point, the film festival became the platform on which the Institute could bring independent film to the world.

"The festival became that, and became very visible, and needs to be," said Satter, "but the labs don’t." So while the Sundance Film Festival takes its place at the center of the filmmaking world every January, the labs work in relative anonymity.

This year, as the Sundance Institute and its filmmakers labs celebrate their 25th anniversary, the Sundance Film Festival features seven films with ties to the directors and screenwriters labs. They include five American Dramatic Competition films "Sherrybaby," "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," "Half Nelson," "Stephanie Daley," "Wristcutters: A Love Story," and in the Frontier and Spectrum categorys, "Wild Tigers I Have Known," and "Open Window," respectively.

According to Satter, the festival usually includes about that many films.

"It’s anywhere between five and eight projects that have premieres at Sundance," she said.

With the Sundance Film Festival exerting such a significant influence over the exposure of new American independent cinema, Satter said that while the lab films catch no special breaks in the festival selection process, many of them premiere at the event.

"Because the festival is such a focal point for new work, it’s great for the film if it can work out that way," she said. "When it works out, it’s thrilling for the filmmaker and us as well."

But, while some directors talk about feeling as if they’re taking their projects full circle when they reach the film festival, Satter noted that the Institute offers another level of involvement beyond participation in the labs and the film festival.

"In some ways it’s the partial end of the cycle," she said about taking a film to the festival. "The perfect end of the cycle is when the filmmakers come back [to the labs] as advisors."

Then, she noted, they can share their experience with a whole new generation of filmmakers. Nicole Holofcener, the director of this year’s opening film, "Friends with Money," and a one-time participant in the lab (with her first project, the 1996 Sundance Film Festival Film "Walking and Talking") provides an example of such an artist, returning to the lab this past year to serve as an advisor.

Satter said that some of the least-known benefits of the labs are the resources they make available to filmmakers throughout the year. The feature film program, she said, doesn’t simply end when a writer or director leaves a lab, rather the labs work together, providing multiple tools for directors. after their time at the resorts, the filmmakers have a whole array of resources available to them.

"That means that once we select a project for the lab, they’ll have access to a year round program," said Satter.

The feature film program, she noted will follow a project through its life as a script, helping it find producers and funding, providing a friendly voice during filming and offering connections for distribution.

The films that came through the labs speak to the process. Among some examples Satter cited were "Paradise Now," "Me and You and Everyone We Know," "Maria Full of Grace," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Boys Don’t Cry," and "Smoke Signals."

She said one of the highlights of her job was to finally see the finished products after their time in the labs.

"It’s pretty amazing," she said, "to sit in the screening room of a film for the first time to find myself as an audience member as well as knowing I impacted the film."

Otherwise, she said her favorite part of her job comes at the labs themselves, in the summers at Sundance Resort, working, as she said, to reveal the human connections at the heart of each film.

"The actual process, I love," she said, "because it’s a beautiful quality of discovery."

So, after the hours of hard work in the heat of the summer, up at the resort, a film can be ready for its time at the film festival. No matter how many months or years away that might be, and no matter how far the chilly film festival scene might seem from the meadows of the North Fork Canyon.


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